A Dave's Collectible Coins Article

Coin Grading Basics

How Does One Begin Coin Grading?

The purpose of this article is to give you enough information so that you can have an idea how to grade coins on your own. Even among professional coin grading services, people can disagree. So, it’s in your best interest to have an idea of how to do this yourself.

Here we focus on circulated coins. That is to say, coins that were in actual use. Grading coins that were not minted for use and were not used, like proof coins, have different rules.


Let’s clear up a few coin terms compliments of the US Mint Coin Glossary:

GRADE: Rating which indicates how much a coin has worn from circulation.

FIELD: The portion of a coin’s surface not used for design or inscription

RELIEF: The part of a coin’s design that is raised above the surface…

In the activity of coin grading, you will be inspecting the high points of the coins, that is to say the RELIEF which sits on the FIELD of the coin. You will be looking to see how much wear and tear has affected the relief of the coin. Depending on this wear and tear, you will be able to establish a GRADE for the coin.

Now, let’s take look at the most common grades used for circulated coins.


POOR – Identifiable as to type of coin. Most details worn off.

FAIR – Enough detail must remain to identify the coin as to date and type as well as mintmark if applicable.

Fair Indian Head Cent

ABOUT GOOD – Most of the design of the coin will be outlined, but the rims will generally have worn far enough into the design to remove parts of the lettering or stars.

About Good – Lincoln Wheat Cent

GOOD – Heavily worn such that inscriptions merge into the rims in places; major features are mostly worn down.

Good – Lincoln Wheat Cent

VERY GOOD – Very worn, but all major parts of the design are evident, although faint. Little if any central detail remains.

Very Good – Lincoln Wheat Cent

FINE – All lettering is sharp. The letters in the word LIBERTY are all present in coins with this grade, but may be weak. Even wear throughout the coin.

Fine – Lincoln Wheat Cent

VERY FINE – Moderately worn, with some finer details persisting. All letters of LIBERTY or the motto are complete and sharp. The rims on both sides of the coin are full and separated from the field.

Very Fine – Lincoln Wheat Cent

EXTRA FINE – Lightly worn; all devices (raised parts of the coin) are clear, significant devices are bold. Details are clean, complete and clear but may show some evidence of light wear.

Extra Fine – Lincoln Wheat Cent

ABOUT UNCIRCULATED – Slight traces of wear on the highest points of the coin. Should have good eye appeal.

About Uncirculated – Lincoln Wheat Cent

ABOUT UNCIRCULATED+ (or) SLIDER – So close to uncirculated that someone might try to slide into an uncirculated roll or set. Light evidence of handling.

There are other factors to grading circulated coins, but with a good understanding of the above, you have solid basics and you can get started.


There are many facets to examining a coin. But here are a few key points to get you going:

  • Don’t clean the coins! Cleaning them may reduce their resale value.
  • Touch the edge of the coin, rather than either face.
  • Inspection demands good lighting.

Graders typically use the naked eye. Some numismatic groups use ONLY the naked eye.

After grading, put the coin in protective flips with a label so they will not lessen in value after your work.


There are several coin grading companies that will do this service for you, such as:

PCGS – Professional Coin Grading Service

NGC – Numismatic Guaranty Corporation

ANACS – American Numismatic Association Certification Service

ICG – Independent Coin Graders

Even so, it’s best to also exercise your own judgment.

For more information on the grading of coins, see the articles in the Reference section below. Also, for graphic descriptions of each coin and grade, see PCGS PHOTOGRADE™ ONLINE (also provided below).


The Spruce Crafts – Coin Grading Made Simple

The Spruce Crafts – How To Grade Morgan Dollars

PCGS Photograde™ Online

Heritage Auctions – Coin Grading Tutorial

YouTube – Understanding Coin Grading (American Numismatic Assoc.)

Wikipedia – Coin grading

Wikipedia – Sheldon coin grading scale

Other Interesting Articles from Our Archives

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